Love Me Tenders: A Chicken Tender Crawl Through Manchester
Wicked Joyful’s Nick Lavallee guides New Hampshire Magazine through a five-stop crawl of Manchester, the chicken tender capital of the world.
“I went before the mayor and the aldermen, and I’m on a quest to declare Manchester the Chicken Tender Capital of the World, because it is.”
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in late December. Nick Lavallee is reiterating his initiative’s oral manifesto for the fifth time today, presently at a small Goffstown eatery named Charlie’s. As part of that initiative, Lavallee dedicated the day to leading photographer Cade Velleman and me on a chicken tender crawl across the Queen City, hitting five essential establishments that make Manchester “The Chicken Tender Capital of the World,” as he’s coined it. Charlie’s is our fifth and final stop.
“I’m all about celebrating tenders citywide,” Lavallee says to the young woman working the register at Charlie’s. “No one disputes the fact that Manchester is the chicken tender capital of the world, because we all know the originator was the Puritan Backroom Restaurant in 1974.”
“Nope, not the originator,” quips an older gentleman seated alone at a table behind us. “They coined the phrase ‘tenders.’ Way before that, there were chicken nuggets.”
Maybe so. But as Helen Rosner writes in her ode “On Chicken Tenders” for the online magazine Guernica, “Unlike nuggets, which are largely made from processed, re-formed scraps, the chicken tender takes its name from an actual piece of the chicken: the pectoralis minor, a muscle located under the breast, against the sternum.” So there’s an anatomical difference between the tender and its many kindred counterparts (fingers, strips, nuggets, etc.). Still, the older gentleman’s rash interjection did, in fact, contain some validity — validity that actually furthers Lavallee’s mission. The nugget may predate the tender (and, according to Wikipedia, it does), but Manchester’s own Puritan Backroom Restaurant did create the chicken tender in 1974. This fact is central to (but not wholly responsible for) Lavallee’s North Star. “I don’t necessarily think there is a best [chicken tender restaurant in Manchester],” Lavallee says. “You aren’t truly from Manchester unless you have a strong opinion about chicken tenders. And I feel like now’s the time. Now’s the time for Manchester to declare [itself] the chicken tender capital of the world. I see it, man, I see it. I see people being psyched about it.”
Lavallee’s having something of a moment — and for the 43-year-old former stand-up comedian who’s journeyed an impassioned, atypical path, that’s saying something. At the time of our late-December crawl, Lavallee had just received a merchandise order from Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, made an appearance on Boston’s WBZ 1030 News Radio with Matt Shearer (aka @MattWBZ, a social media sensation known for his 90-second video clips covering New England eccentricities) and hosted a succession of pop-up shops that each quintupled his sales goals. All the hoopla comes courtesy of his art-toy-and-apparel brand Wicked Joyful, which released a shirt in early December starring an anthropomorphic chicken tender dunking itself in duck sauce under the catchphrase “Chicken Tender Capital of the World: Manchester, New Hampshire, Since 1974.” The shirt — featuring illustration work by graphic designer Don Leon Schuuring of Dedonleon Design Studio — is the main avatar of the initiative, which is why Lavallee had us don the shirts during our citywide tender crawl.
This elicited one of three reactions when encountering passersby: recognition (more often than I expected), inquisition (relatively frequently) and unaware-but-joyous smirking (repeatedly). One couple at the Puritan Backroom Restaurant (our first stop) even queried, upon seeing our shirts, “Isn’t the guy who started this a comedian or something?” Which is where things get complicated.
“Stand-up for me was always like a glorified hobby,” Lavallee says, “but I did some really great things. I saw friends experience the highest of highs, and I’ve seen the lowest of lows.” Lavallee began his stand-up comedy career in his early 30s, hitting Manchester open mics and figuring into the local scene. Over time, he would co-host a weekly comedy night at Manchester’s Shaskeen Pub and Restaurant and even “get passed” by fabled comedy club Laugh Factory in 2012. He opened for Andrew Dice Clay and Bo Burnham; he brought Dan Soder, Sam Jay and the late Brody Stevens to Manchester, letting them crash on his couch after performances; he relinquished countless nights and weekends to the craft. And despite all this weighty momentum, Lavallee realized he didn’t wholly enjoy the person it made him.
“I look back and I’m like, ‘Was I really doing stand-up to do it, or was it the pursuit of ego? Was I trying to do something with that chip on my shoulder?’” he says. “I was just burnt out on using self-deprecating humor as a crutch. It’s not good. I said these terrible things about myself that may or may not be true to elicit laughter, saying things like, ‘My dick looks like a gummy bear on a hacky sack.’ And it doesn’t. It’s nice. It’s like, what the hell? I was doing it, for what? You say something long enough, you start believing it.”
Lavallee made the decision to realign his priorities and pour his relentless enthusiam into other pursuits. Quitting alcohol seven years ago, losing 50 pounds and withdrawing from the stand-up scene in 2020, he harnessed his fervor into “living completely authentic to myself,” as he puts it. Wicked Joyful was a natural extension of that. “Once you drop the pursuit of ego, you can actually have these creative endeavors and just enjoy them,” he says. “You gotta live authentically. If there’s anything about myself that I’m telling through this chicken tender initiative, it’s that I’m on a personal quest to live more authentically, and I would encourage anyone else to do the same. Especially if part of your authenticity is bringing other people up and focusing on the positive — then yeah, 100 percent, be yourself. No matter how silly or absurd that version of self may be.”
Is standing at the counter of the fifth restaurant you’ve been to that day and explaining your quest to crown Manchester the chicken tender capital of the world a little bit silly and absurd? Absolutely. But it also springs from a real drive to unite the city, generate community and highlight the positive — something Lavallee harps on time and time again. As a coordinator in community media by day (a field he’s worked in his entire professional career), it’s one of the biggest forces propelling his life. And as he sees it, the chicken tender initiative aligns his full-time goals with the humor and fun of his passion projects. I see Lavallee’s ambitions play out in real time during our day together: In every restaurant we drop in and nearly every street we walk down, Lavallee recognizes an old or current friend, engendering an in-depth, intimate conversation. He’s a known Manchester figure — a Central High School graduate who only moved away once for a year-long stint in Boston, decades ago — who thrives on community engagement.
“I know I’ll have made it when my name is on the counter here,” Lavallee says during our third stop of the day, the acclaimed Red Arrow Diner on Lowell Street. Little placards on the bar-top commemorate celebrities who’ve passed through the establishment, including Adam Sandler, Paul Newman and Rudy Giuliani. The Red Arrow is a 101-year-old, grizzled Manchester mecca known for its 24-hour service. As it turns out, they also sling delicious chicken tenders. Chowing down, we all concur: Red Arrow’s take on the tender is what Lavallee calls a “dry tendy” opposed to a “damp” one, more akin to a classic tender than what’s become known as “Manchester-style.”
The “Manchester chicken tender” is a style of tender created by Charlie Pappas, the father of the Puritan Backroom Restaurant’s current owner, president and treasurer Arthur Pappas, in 1974. It’s been carried on with honor and reverence at the Goldenrod Restaurant Drive-In (our second stop) by former Backroom employees and current Goldenrod co-owners Richard “Rich” Webber and Ron DiBurro. It’s not heavily battered or breaded and “somewhere between a crunch and a crisp, but more of a crunch than a crisp,” as Lavallee says. It’s marinated in pineapple juice and sugar and a slew of other clandestine ingredients. It must be eaten dipped in duck sauce. Both Puritan Backroom and Goldenrod’s duck sauces derive from the same base (sourced from an Asian food establishment) but receive different supplemental ingredients.
Backroom serves a thinner condiment than Goldenrod; the latter amalgamates apple cider vinegar, water, sugar and apple sauce into the base. Many — nay, umpteen other Manchester eateries offer impeccable chicken tenders (the very fact that gives Lavallee’s initiative credibility) and many incorporate a pineapple-juice marinade or a house-made duck sauce to inventive, delicious ends. But only two establishments serve a true Manchester-style chicken tender: Puritan Backroom Restaurant and Goldenrod Restaurant Drive-In.
I learn this firsthand during our first two stops. The Backroom is a tried-and-true Manchester staple with enough lore to merit its own PBS documentary. Virtually every southern New Hampshire native knows the Backroom like the back of their hand, with an astounding number of birthday parties, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs and myriad celebrations consistently hosted there. The Backroom’s excellence (and massive sprawl of booths and tables) is well documented and frequently championed.
Meanwhile Goldenrod, another beloved Granite State establishment, holds the crown as the go-to summer spot, with an array of order windows facing the street pumping out fast-food trays bearing paper plates and heaping servings. While each establishment implements their own subtle tweaks to the recipe, both are undoubtedly Manchester chicken tenders — juicy, quite literally tender cuts of meat with delicate breading and a palpable pineapple sweetness. Dipped in the duck sauce’s light effervescence — a wispy, sweet, tangy condiment mantilla — the tender conjures a mouthful of culinary magic, the meeting of two destined but unforeseen lovers at the perfect time and place.
The “Manchester chicken tender” forever stands as the original — the time-tested recipe inspiring all others. This isn’t to say it’s inherently better — Lavallee reiterates this throughout the day — but it’s the OG, the godfather. No others exist without it.
During our fourth stop, at the Shaskeen, I decide that I might even prefer the Elm Street pub’s take on the tender: dipped in a Magners Irish Cider and Guinness combination, breaded with flavorful seasonings and flash-fried. And at our final locale Charlie’s, the owner, Costa “Charlie” Troupakis, tells us their tenders were voted WMUR Manchester’s “Viewer’s Choice Best Chicken Tender” four times. Not all tenders are created equal — but in Manchester, they’re all created exceptionally.
After waddling out of Charlie’s, having completed the tender crawl over the course of a five-hour lunch, I’m forced to reconcile the chicken tender’s larger reputation with its reality here in Manchester. This isn’t a simple kid’s menu meal; this isn’t a fast-food junk dish that begrudgingly travels down your esophagus and holds your bowels hostage for a night of porcelain firecrackers; and this isn’t, above all else, a joke. Yes, it’s silly, and maybe even a little bit absurd. But these tenders are serious — and Lavallee, spearheading Wicked Joyful, is serious. His ambition is steadfast: He will uplift the Manchester chicken tender, and the Manchester chicken tender will uplift his city and community.
Lavallee believes it’s time to celebrate the city, to spark positivity and attract tourism and give the city a nationally known reputation. He doesn’t want the initiative to be about him, or any individual for that matter. Lavallee simply hopes for Manchester residents to be proud of their stomping grounds and to spread joy wherever and whenever they can. And the perfect vessel to do so? Well, it ought to be dunked in duck sauce, devoured with a smile and created right here in the Queen City.
“I’m not running for office, but I am campaigning to get more people enthusiastic about being from Manchester,” Lavallee says. “I just try to do things that make me happy and potentially bring other people joy and not let myself feel shame for having these ideas that might be a little bit quirky or outside the box” — things like our chicken tender crawl.
“I feel confident in what this is and could be. I’m psyched,” says Lavallee. “Can you tell how enthusiastic I am?”